‘Selma’ director DuVernay joins ‘MHP’ for extensive interview

Updated

The critically-acclaimed film “Selma,” which opened in wide release on Friday, won a Golden Globe award Sunday night for Best Original Song. The film was up for four awards–including a nomination for director Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe in the best director category.

Days before the ceremony, DuVernay joined host Melissa Harris-Perry for an extensive interview about her directorial choices in the film. The “Selma” director addressed criticism about the film’s portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson, which began after the former assistant for domestic affairs in Johnson’s administration penned an op-ed for the Washington Post claiming the movie misrepresents the president’s role in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march.

Melissa Harris-Perry, 1/11/15, 11:33 AM ET

‘Selma’ director: LBJ controversy unfortunate distraction

Ava DuVernay talks about the controversy over her depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson in her film “Selma.” Elizabeth Alexander, Mychal Denzel Smith and Julian Zelizer discuss.
“I think it’s an unfortunate distraction to a film that is not about LBJ,” DuVernay told Harris-Perry, adding that the criticism has detracted from a more robust response to and engagement with the subject of the film. “It has overtaken so many conversations about [‘Selma’] that I’ve had to have with press, and pushed aside conversations we were having before about the parallels between movement history in 1965 in Selma and movement history as it’s unfolding presently in Ferguson,” she said. 

She also noted that the controversy has “pushed aside” mention of “beautiful things that are happening around the film,” including black business leaders creating a fund so that youth in New York City can attend free screenings of the movie.

“I’m a storyteller that had no responsibility to comfort, console, or rehabilitate the image, the legacy, of any of the many great minds who participated in this movement,” DuVernay told Harris-Perry. “My job is to tell the story and imbue it with the spirit of the time… I’m trying to capture the spirit of the movement.”

Part of DuVernay achieving that goal involved revising the film’s script to include the stories and voices of more civil rights leaders. “When I first came on board the project, the women were not there at all,” DuVernay said. “It was really important to start to realign the story to gain some balance. We know historically that the women of the movement have not been bolstered, have not been amplified as much as they should be for all of the amazing work that was done, in all corners, in all different ways… It was vital that they be included in this narrative, and there was no other way I could be involved if they weren’t.”

Melissa Harris-Perry, 1/11/15, 11:25 AM ET

Why the Selma campaign was a success

Melissa Harris-Perry asks “Selma” director Ava DuVernay if the Selma campaign can still be called a win given the recent erosion in voting rights and the current movement calling for an end to police violence in communities of color. Rep. John Lewis, D…
The Golden Globe nominee described her approach as trying to “kiss every piece of [this story], so that you can go in and have more of a love affair… with these moments in history,” and suggested there was value in her “purposeful choice” to introduce more characters, even if there was not time to fully explore their stories.

“I understand by naming them I opened myself up to criticism as to the fact that they’re not explored with much depth,” she said. “But for me it was important to name them and to let people who watch the film bear witness to Diane Nash, to hear the words ‘Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.’ To at least see James Forman.”

DuVernay told Harris-Perry she intended for the film to humanize Martin Luther King, Jr. Relating her own dislike of historical dramas, DuVernay discussed her choice to move away from a sanitized, cathartic narrative of history and instead work to “deconstruct” King. In Selma, the audience watches King take out the trash, argue with his wife, Coretta Scott King, and enjoy light moments with friends. “These are things that we all do,” DuVernay said. “It seems kind of rudimentary, but this is what we fail to do in all of our historical dramas.” She noted that she wanted the film to show King “as an ordinary man who achieved greatness.”

Harris-Perry asked DuVernay about her decision to address King’s rumored infidelity through a quiet scene at home. DuVernay said the film’s divergent approach to the subject was emblematic of the impact of having “different kinds of filmmakers behind the camera.”

Melissa Harris-Perry, 1/11/15, 11:44 AM ET

‘Selma’ portrays MLK as an imperfect man

“Selma” portrays Martin Luther King Jr. as not just a great leader, but also shows his weariness and vulnerability.
“As a woman filmmaker, I’m not interested in some of the things that I’ve seen my male counterparts be interested in, which is the act of the infidelity itself, going into the hotel room, or being with the FBI as they tape. For me, it was really simple: of course I want to know what the sister waiting at home for you says,” DuVernay told Harris-Perry. “I think it really speaks to the importance of having different kinds of people behind the camera; women, people of color. Different perspectives will deal with all kinds of subject matter in different ways… It’s about time we be more diverse in those areas and those representations.”

Selma was DuVernay’s first film that included violence, and she told Harris-Perry she made deliberate choices to “slow the film down” during violent moments, encouraging viewers to connect with the emotion of the moment and not just the physical acts. “Foremost in my mind around every act of violence was reverence… for the life lost,” she explained.

In her interview with Harris-Perry, DuVernay said she hopes the film will make black Americans “proud of… this history, and to really walk away with a sense of care and of tenderness for this time and everyone who fought for freedom during it.”

Accepting the Golden Globe for “Glory,” the song’s co-writer Common–who starred in the film as Rev. James Bevel–called DuVernay a “superhero.” Thanking her from the podium, he told the director, “You use the art to elevate us all and bring us all together.”

Watch Harris-Perry’s interview with DuVernay in its entirety above.

Civil Rights, Melissa Harris-Perry and Racism

'Selma' director DuVernay joins 'MHP' for extensive interview

Updated